Album Review: UMBRA VITAE Shadow of Life
Few bands embody the term “supergroup” like Umbra Vitae. The project reunites Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon with guitarists Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord) and Sean Martin (ex-Hatebreed, Twitching Tongues)—fresh off of last year’s Wear Your Wounds album. The dynamite lineup rounds off with The Red Chord’s Greg Weeks on bass and Jon Rice (Uncle Acid, ex-Job for a Cowboy) on drums. This meeting of minds has a clear objective: to make the meanest music possible, and throw it at listeners like a javelin. To that effect, Shadow of Life makes up for its lack of innovation by dealing 26 minutes of certain, painful death.
The ominous intro “Decadence Dissolves” introduces the album’s immersive darkness, before “Ethereal Emptiness” throws the first punch. With the chainsaw guitar tone of Swedish death metal, McKenzie and Martin lay down some blistering tremolo picking and arpeggios over Rice’s battering blast beat. Akin to Nails, the band wastes no time to contrast blinding speed with crushing beatdowns. In both cases, producer Kurt Ballou plays up Umbra Vitae’s primitive artistry with his signature balance of viscera and clarity. Bannon’s emotive, ferocious snarls prove the perfect fit for this sonic environment.
It only takes one listen to singles “Mantra of Madness” and “Return to Zero” to know that Umbra Vitae has no interest in beating around the bush. The former finds its footing in a barrel-chested groove, transitioning seamlessly to eviscerating grindcore sections. Martin and McKenzie add to the chaos with lower, growling backing vocals, as they tastefully lend empowered melody and chilling dissonance to their barbaric riffs. The latter cut showcases Umbra Vitae’s ability to traverse numerous distinct ideas in relatively short cuts. The band delivers break-neck tempo changes with violent impact and memorable melodicism where it counts.
One of heavy music’s most gifted lyricists, Bannon’s verbal venom has lost none of its potency. Lines like “Take up your guns/ And aim at the sun/ There's nowhere to run/ Born to benumb” push “Atheist Aesthetic” beyond anti-religious platitudes. Indeed, this album's sonic dismemberment maintains a thoughtful, haunting mood. All of the tremolo-picked guitar lines, syncopated beats, or eerie textures on deep cuts like “Fear is a Fossil” feel intentional—even when it forsakes old-school death metal flavors for slugfest breakdowns.
There’s something immensely satisfying about vicious death-grind collapsing into bare-knuckled chugs, as encapsulated by the one-minute “Polluted Paradise.” One might recall powerviolence acts like Weekend Nachos during such blunderbusses, but Umbra Vitae elevates these familiar structures with unignorable songwriting chops. “Intimate Inferno” certainly collides like a rabid rhinoceros, but its structure stands out with emotive lead work and electrifying beat switches. Without trying to outshine one another, each musician does exactly what these songs need.
Rather than trying to top the reservoir of associated acts, Shadow of Life succeeds more in terms of extreme metal done extremely well. It’s hard to see why the mix of chromatic chugs, bewitching guitar melodies, and air-tight rhythm changes on “Blood Blossom” wouldn’t appeal to death metallers, hardcore kids and grindcore speed demons alike. The hair-raising, overwhelming feel at play on the closing title track even takes a turn for black metal. Amid discordant leads and an ever-evolving rhythm section, Bannon pulls out of stops on some of his most terrifying vocal work to date. “Shadows will one day come for you,” his final retort devolves into overwrought, banshee-like shrieks.
It takes a special band to mercilessly beat and cerebrally torment in equal measure. Umbra Vitae certainly packs as much intensity as possible into under 30 minutes, but Shadow of Life looks beyond blunt force trauma. For every grimacing mosh riff, there’s a reprieve of emotional relevance. Every blitz-speed blast section maintains a moody undercurrent. These guys use their experience and chemistry to elevate an aural stampede into a deeply gratifying experience.